Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
Pound, an American who lived most of his life abroad, was a poet of immense stature whose major work, the Cantos, has done more than "express an individuality," as Hugh Kenner wrote. The Cantos "helped make twentieth-century experience intelligible." Pound's influence on other great writers of our time is immeasurable; in fact, it has been said that he is possibly the most representative figure of the cultural and literary climate of the early years of this century. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)
It startled us in our youth and always existed in the back of our minds—the fact that the madman of Pisa was writing the poem of poems. We turned to the prose and found him shouting at us. We read the books he recommended and found them dull, his friends and found them exciting. Much of the cachet of Pound comes from his having such exciting friends. He sought them out and bullied them into writing well. And he was—writing. Walter Kaufman shows us Hegel at thirty, the man of promise crazy to write something great so as not to disappoint his friends, who vomits up a great book. He too, in Marianne Moore's phrase, made us "accustomed to the recurring phosphorescence of antiquity." The Cantos is our White Whale, and four generations of minor poets learned that to ignore it was a kind of suicide. Major poets like Frost could do quite well without it.
The American poet's problem is propaganda. When Poe decided that preaching and teaching were taboo, he cut out from under us the only strategy which had made us accepted. The ground note of all his criticism is that art is something an adult can do, valuable to be busy about. He also abetted the century's reduction of poetry to lyric, a result of the decline of rhetoric—though his poems cut beautiful figures of grammar. Pound, drunk on elegiac cadences (dactyly, dactyly, dactyly, thump thump) and the idea of writing a long poem, can't make it cohere. Any page of Fletcher's Divine Comedy pleases more ways than a random Canto. Yet I suspect (and have never seen it suggested by a critic) that Pound thought he was writing like Dante. Through the thirties the ablest critic of other people's verse—in the sense of recognizing good new stuff—he seems to have genuinely mistaken his own. What I miss in him is the Elder Statesman, a wise combination of Saintsbury and Tennyson, writing unexpected letters to Roethke commending his ingenuity. But Pound aged more like Whitman, who was fully as embarrassing old as young. His philosophical cousins (if that makes any sense at all) are the German philosophers who got drunk on Will; the necessity of The Cantos is psychological. It says two things to a reader: I am important, and I am unintelligible. Critics like Noel Stock convince us that the unintelligibility is not profundity. What he withholds from us (when he says something rather than does something) is the contingent inane. But even when you know that, The Cantos is impressive, like Barnum, a triumph of imagination over common sense. Unlike Dante or Milton, his sideshow characters are merely what the barker says they are. International finance is the substitute for the medieval philosophy he hadn't the energy to understand. If we hunt through The Cantos looking for beauties, we treat Pound the way he probably treated Dante. Without logic and rhetoric (in the sense of the possibility of a large-scale argument, and the little squabbles and lectures that mean so much from Homer to Milton) to hold him up, he's got nothing except some dippy ideas on history and verse to see him through.
Wrong, we say, from the start. There is nothing in them of the sweep of humanity in the epics we read lots. Zukofsky's "A" poems have more life, more good sense, and more music. We will accept no cheap saves here, as that individual lines are all right, or that he spent a life writing them so we should at least read them. The history in The Cantos is oddly enough an outside history. I can't look at them—or even know they're on my shelf—without remembering their mythic existence in the back of the mind, of the minds of what seems a century of working poets—the idea of a Faustian old man in thick country clothes, writing a poem to save the world and put us all to shame. In this sense, even on the shelf, even looked at, his Cantos are the apotheosis of the Work in Progress, and for us what Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy would have been if it had announced itself as an epic. (pp. 210-11)
Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1971 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1971.
It appears that Pound the Orientalist scarcely existed. His celebrated translations have only a sketchy connection with the originals. This would be fine, hardly worth mentioning, except for the fact that in the later Cantos he goes one step further and instead of giving us his visual semantic intuitions, he gives us the Chinese characters themselves. He has stopped translating so we can all—what fun!—become sinologues or imagists or both.
At least part of this impulse, we may be sure, is to change the look of the poem. But a poet moving toward illustration—even as recondite as picture-writing—has either worn out his verbal resources or has started playing erudite games because he is bored. If poetry is rooted in the living tongue, as Pound has said, must we all learn the sound system of Chinese? Or do we regard the strokes as illuminations in the manuscript? The use of ideograms as a concrete element is really the culmination of a process begun long before, an insistence on naming things of personal significance to the writer. And so we must conclude that this visual delicatessen will yield up its full flavor only to one man and he is dead. (p. 36)
Pound says of Confucius, "He liked good music, he collected 'The Odes' to keep his followers from abstract discussion. That is, 'The Odes' give particular instances. They do not lead to exaggerations of dogma."
This is not only the voice of an elderly imagist who likes particular instances himself. It is the voice of a man obsessed with what could be hefted or shaped or seen or named. As if beyond the concrete lay the void of absolute terror, filled with creatures of no name. One wonders if this same obsession didn't underlie his love for the America of 1760–1830, an Edenic time of small farmers and craftsmen who worked with their hands and kept their savings under the cellar floor. It explains, perhaps, his equation of goodness with craftsmanship, his notion that from fit activity come fit thoughts. It is not unrelated to the fact that Mussolini, on first gaining power, cried out for a return to an artisan society—a cry that must have echoed Pound's creed joyously. And from here it is only a short step to his hatred of credit and capital—invisible money, the greatest abstraction of all, based on future demand instead of present satisfaction, the very opposite of what can be stored under the cellar floor. His downward progress from there has been chronicled—through his hatred of banking and usury to his hatred of Jews. It is ironic that the intention he ascribes to Confucius—the need to avoid exaggerations of dogma—was what proved his own undoing. He really had no head for anything but language, least of all for the illusionary constructs of finance.
Yes, language was what he knew. He was a tinkerer, a Ford or Edison out in the toolshed of English poetry, making it harder and tougher, giving it shape and speed and illumination. He was not interested in what your poems were about but in how hard-edge your lines were. If Pound goes unread now and in the future, except among academics, it will be because of this, because readers will sense that behind the brilliance he was only a technician, a better fabricator and no more. The social issues of his day didn't interest him. He cared about reforming the word only, and the time was never far off when this aestheticism would betray him into stupidity or worse. And his compassionless core locates him in the 19th century after all—the decade of Swinburne and Rossetti, of velvet jackets and flowing ties, all of which he hated so much.
His tragedy, then, is not merely a personal one—12 years in a place for the criminally insane. It is the tragedy of failed art (I almost wrote heart), art that only incidentally reached beyond craft or technology and into the ageless issues of poetry—love and freedom and justice and redemption. It is simply not enough to re-scrutinize the English sentence. The age demanded more.
But time passes and fairness requires that we acknowledge a last attempt at atonement, a belated apology by the poet. The Cookson anthology [Selected Prose, 1909–1965, edited by William Cookson] contains a brief Foreword written especially by Pound and dated July 4, 1972. He was 86 years old then and in failing health. Here are the last four lines:
In sentences referring to groups or races
"they" should be used with great care.
I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause.
The cause is AVARICE.
Not enough really, but all we are likely to get.
R. I. P., Ezra. (pp. 36, 44)
Richard W. Hall, "'Let the gods forgive …'," in The Village Voice (copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), May 23, 1974, pp. 35-6, 44.
There … seems to be no end to the making of books about Ezra Pound. Most of them see him not only as a great poet, but as a catalyst making other (modern) poetry possible. His influence on Eliot is noted and elaborated upon while his prose (which makes up nine-tenths of his work) is usually ignored. And his epic poem, The Cantos, is more often than not woefully misrepresented….
[There is, in The Cantos,] false history (ancient, modern and medieval) combined with contempt for the many and compassion for the few—in fact, for one man only, Benito Mussolini.
In … Canto (Number 74, the first of the notorious "Pisan Cantos," written after the Holocaust) we read: "the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle [who] go to saleable slaughter with a maximum of docility." In Canto 80 we are informed that "Petain defended Verdun while Blum defended a bidet." And from Canto 91 we get this lesson in democracy—and in italics:
democracies electing their sewage
till there is no thought of holiness
a dung flow from 1913
and in this their kikery functioned….
A full elucidation of all the crude Jew-baiting, race-hating, defamations to be found in Pound's "epic" would consume ten times the space a relatively short essay can encompass. (p. 21)
There is much in the writing about Pound that, as they say, boggles the mind. How, you may ask, can language so clearly stated, as Pound stated it, lead to such other-wordly conclusions? The answer probably lies in the need to elevate the poet—the writer—above the common run of humanity. Can a man, hailed as one of America's greatest poets, be an anti-Semite? It is, of course, possible in the sense that everything is possible. Whether Pound is paradigm here is arguable. There are those—Edmund Wilson, Robert Graves, Edward Dahlberg, among a host of others—who are not too much enamored with Pound as thinker or poet. Dahlberg thought his "epic" a hoax, Wilson saw bankruptcy in The Cantos, while Robert Graves once wrote: "It is an extraordinary paradox that Pound's sprawling, ignorant, indecent, and unmelodious Cantos … are now compulsory reading in many ancient centers of learning."…
When Pound says "Wellington was a jew's pimp" (Canto 50), he means just that. When he writes that the "yidd is a stimulant" whose lust for usury sends the poor "goyim" off to "saleable slaughter" (Canto 74) he means that, too. And when he tells us in Canto 87 of the "total dirt that was Roosevelt," he means "total dirt," even if [some critics are] convinced that these late Cantos (written in St. Elizabeth's Hospital where Pound was confined after he copped a plea of insanity to avoid standing trial for treason) "present a paradise of tenderness, delicacy and clarity absent from the literature since Dante."
Tenderness? Delicacy? Thus is language debauched and reason defiled to make a banquet for a "parasite," as Wyndham Lewis called Pound at the same time he said of him that he was "a person without a trace of originality of any sort." I don't agree. There was some originality in the man. Who else could have broadcast this (as Pound did) over the Rome radio warning America that it was nonsense to believe that it couldn't "happen" there. "What happen? Kikery, bolshevism happen right in your rationed nation, right where abundance has been bashed on the head by the high kikery. You have taken several things into yr. Lebensraum, Lebensraum. TOTEN's raum. Ezra Pound speaking." (Reproduced as recorded by Pound's mistress, Olga Rudge.)
[According to Michael Reck, writing in Ezra Pound: A Closeup,] Robert Graves said Pound should have been hanged. I tend to doubt this. I am more in accord with the gentler severities of Robert Frost. The New England poet pressed for Pound's release from confinement on the grounds that he did not want to help make "a martyr out of a traitor." (p. 22)
Max Geltman, "The Ezra Pound Apologists," in Congress Bi-Weekly, May 24, 1974, pp. 21-2.